ST. PETERSBURG — With a new principal owner in St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards, new players boasting considerable high-level experience and versatility, and new midfield seats providing premium views of the pitch and waterfront, perhaps no season opener since the reintroduction of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2010 has been as highly anticipated. They kick off the season Saturday against FC Edmonton at Al Lang Stadium. Three major story lines emerged during the offseason that will figure prominently in the Rowdies' attempts to dethrone 2013 league champion New York Cosmos at the top of the North American Soccer League.
Local star comes home
After inking 2013 NASL Golden Ball (league MVP) winner Georgi Hristov to a four-year contract in the offseason, the Rowdies added to an already potent lineup by signing Clearwater native Brian Shriver.
Shriver, a forward who was on the field at Al Lang for last season's opener — with Carolina — scored 15 goals for the RailHawks in 2013 to capture the league's Golden Boot (most goals) award. Combining up top with Hristov and one of a number of options between Carl Cort, Lucky Mkosana and Casey Townsend for the third forward spot in coach Ricky Hill's preferred 4-3-3 formation, Shriver heads an attack that, on paper, should score more goals than any other team in the league.
"We have so many guys the team brought in that can contribute offensively," said Shriver, 26. "But, ultimately, we still have to go out and score goals."
Restrepo a no go
Venezuelan-born goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, who started 2013 as a backup, won the starter's jersey by Game 4 and was arguably the best keeper in the NASL by season's end, is wearing a boot on his left leg after tearing his Achilles tendon in the second week of preseason camp.
While Restrepo begins the rehab process in hopes of a return for the fall season, the Rowdies made a few moves to shore up the position, signing trialist Cody Mizell, Jamaican national Ryan Thompson and former Colorado Rapids standout Matt Pickens, the Rapids' record holder for most games in goal (116) and wins (41) in franchise history. The 32-year-old Pickens is the projected starter.
"Matt's experience is something that we hope throughout the course of his time here at the club will play great benefit to us defensively," Hill said.
The downfall of the 2013 Rowdies was a porous back line that allowed a league-high 27 goals in 14 fall season matches and put Restrepo under a constant barrage of shots and one-on-one breakaways.
While the defense remains largely intact from a year ago, a couple new additions, including a familiar face, have the Rowdies hoping the problem has been rectified.
For the first time since, well, ever, the Rowdies will have a true left-footed left back in Blake Wagner, who spent four seasons with MLS' FC Dallas and the past two with the NASL's San Antonio Scorpions.
Anthony Wallace, a midfielder previously with the Colorado Rapids, can also fill in at left back if needed. Returning in 2014 is Tampa native and Land O'Lakes High product J.P. Rodrigues, who played for the Rowdies in 2011 and during the team's NASL championship run in 2012, pairing with Takuya Yamada for 25 of 32 league games in central defense that season.
"Whilst he's been back, you realize how much you missed him last year," Hill said. "He's got that will to win, that desire to never get beat. I think that can be infectious."
Rodrigues joins recently-signed trialist Willie Hunt and a group of holdovers that include four-year captain Frankie Sanfilippo, 39-year-old Japanese international Yamada, 2013 part-time starter Jay Needham and right back candidate Jordan Gafa.